The Militarized Divide

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The Militarized Divide

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This shattered nation.

“Eric Garner was overweight and in poor health. He was a nuisance to shop owners who complained about him selling untaxed cigarettes on the street. When police came to arrest him, he resisted. And if he could repeatedly say, ‘I can’t breathe,’ it means he could breathe.”

And, oh yeah: “You cannot go out and break the law. What we did not hear is that you cannot resist arrest. That’s a crime.”

"Either we’re united by our common humanity or we live in a broken world, a nation hellishly divided against itself, a roiling stew of privilege and squalor."

This is the police counter-narrative, as reported by the Associated Press. Eric Garner’s choking death was mostly his own fault. It’s another standoff: another line of cops in bulletproof vests, ominously gripping their batons, stepping slowly toward the protesters. “He was a nuisance . . .” Get him, boys. Take him down.

The national divide is solid and four-square. Actual human beings congregate only on one side of it, or the other. If Eric Garner is a nuisance and Michael Brown is a thug and Trayvon Martin is a suspicious-looking kid in a hoodie who didn’t belong in that neighborhood . . . then, whoosh, all their humanity vanishes and “upholding the law” justifies every action against them, including killing them. The cries of grief from their families are just irritating noises. The outrage about it is insubordination.

Either we’re united by our common humanity or we live in a broken world, a nation hellishly divided against itself, a roiling stew of privilege and squalor. And no one in such a world is free — that is to say, fully himself or herself, fully human. Fear rules. Hatred rules.

As James Baldwin wrote more than 50 years ago, in an essay originally printed in The Progressive called “A Letter to My Nephew”: “We cannot be free until they are free.”

If this is true, then we’re stuck — forced to acknowledge, and ultimately to honor, the humanity of “them,” the ones on the other side of the divide.

What does this look like? When I ask myself this, I suddenly think about a high school student and her alarm clock. It’s the simplest story imaginable, but maybe it holds a kernel of truth profound beyond reckoning: Building power with one another is more effective than exerting power over them. Slowly, Chicago’s public school system is getting it: Punishment, suspension and expulsion — “zero tolerance” — are wrecking lives, not establishing order.

An alternative to such ineffective practices is known as restorative justice, about which I have written a great deal. A few days ago, as part of my ongoing research about the restorative justice movement in Chicago, I interviewed several students at a local high school, Sullivan, who were part of what is known as a peer-conferencing program at the school. Kids who get into trouble, rather than face automatic reprimand and punishment, have a chance, instead, to talk with fellow students trained in peacebuilding work and try to find root causes and solutions to whatever’s going on.

One of the trained “peace ambassadors,” Jamisha, told me about her first conference, with a girl who was continually late to school. The girl explained that her mom doesn’t always wake her up, but vowed, as a result of their half-hour discussion, to start setting an alarm clock. And that was it. Problem solved. End of story.

What made this story feel enormous was that, in a punishment-based system, this simple solution could so easily have been overlooked. The girl could have been defined as a “problem” and wound up, my God, in a downward spiral of punishments that ended in expulsion. Think of the bitterness such a system engenders.

Another one of the peace ambassadors, Jonathan, told me about the difference he’s noticed at the school since peer conferencing and other restorative practices have taken hold: “That feeling of hostility in the hallways isn’t there anymore!”

I take a deep breath and move from Sullivan High School to politics and policing across the country. Then I think about the National Defense Authorization Act, which, as Pro Publica reports, “has provided $4.3 billion in free military equipment to local police” since the 1990s.

And, as Faiza Patel wrote this week at, “. . . the issue is not just military equipment, but a counterinsurgency mindset that ‘views residents as potential threats rather than potential partners.’ The White House review on federal support for the acquisition of equipment by police failed to grapple with the core problem of whether providing military equipment to police effects their culture and undermines cooperative relations with the communities they are meant to serve.”

Of course, police do serve a segment of their communities. Last month, in Pontiac, Mich., a revelatory “us vs. them” moment was captured in a YouTube video, which showed the interaction between an African-American man and a police officer who stopped him as he was out walking on a snowy day.

“You were making people nervous,” the officer tells him. “They said you had your hands in your pockets.”

That was it. No arrest, just incredulity and bad vibes. Being a cop in a race-terrified society means serving the divide, not bridging it. And the hostility continues.

Robert C. Koehler

Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound is now available. Contact him at or visit his website at

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